‘On Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Poets’ Celebration’ (Review)

IMG_5415Saturday marks the quatercentary of Shakespeare’s death, and while I rarely get involved with anything outside the world of fiction in translation these days, there are some events even I can’t ignore.  In fact, today’s post marks an even greater shift away from my usual fare, with my review wandering into an area I’m rather unfamiliar with.  Thanks to a review copy I was recently offered, it’s time for some poetry on the blog, both new and old, celebrating old Will and his way with words…

For me, Shakespeare has always been, first and foremost, a playwright, but he’s also one of the English language’s most famous poets, with his collection of sonnets proving his predictions of eternal fame right.  An apt way to commemorate the anniversary of his death (and celebrate his birthday…), then, might be to revisit some of these, and that’s exactly what Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare have done with the collection On Shakespeare’s Sonnets – A Poets’ Celebration (my copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia).  A beautiful, slim hardback book, the collection contains a selection of the sonnets along with responses from a number of contemporary English-language poets, among them some of the biggest names in the field (or so I am assured!).

With thirty modern poets featured, there’s a lot of variety to enjoy among the responses to Shakespeare’s original pieces.  The original and its response are mostly set face-to-face, allowing the reader to compare the two easily and see the inspiration.  Some of the modern poets have taken the task seriously, attempting to use the traditional sonnet form and adhere to a similar tone: examples of this approach include Imtias Dharker’s take on Sonnet 43, ‘The Trick’, which plays with images of light,dark and shadow, as well as Gillian Clark’s ‘Magnetism’ (116), a poem of longing for an absent loved one.

Then again, some efforts are slightly more light-hearted about the whole affair.  Douglas Dunn’s ‘Senex on Market Street’, seems to mock Sonnet 1’s ardour with its opening line:

Posh totty totters past on serious heels. (p.3)

While it does have a more serious side, it’s certainly a more modern take on the poet writing of a beautiful woman…  Another in this vein is Nick Laird’s ‘After Sonnet 38’, calling on ‘the sonneteers, our fabulous liars’ (p.27) to get their MacBook Airs out and start writing the praises of the woman he admires.

While several of the poets attempt to use the sonnet form, many prefer to break free of these constraints to express their own version of the poems.  Fiona Sampson’s ‘Drowned Man’ (143) consists of six short four-line verses describing a couple’s dreamy movements in bed:

Look how they sleep first he turns
away and then she turns
after him or now she turns
her back and he follows (p.67)

Andrew Motion’s ‘Rhapsodies’ keep the form without the rhymes, wandering across lines and including short questions and phrases within them.  His take on Sonnet 12 is a nice one, playing on the idea of time passing in the first line with one of his own:

The clocks change, and suddenly there’s the shock
of walking home in darkness (p.7)

Obviously, the end of daylight saving is enough to drive even poets to distraction…

Interestingly enough, despite having a wealth of sonnets to choose from, it’s not uncommon for two, or even three, of the modern poets to have opted for the same one, allowing different views of the same poem.  One example of this is Sonnet 60, with Kevin Crossley-Holland’s ‘Time’s Fool’ using nine non-rhyming couplets to examine the wave metaphor of the original.  For me, though, Ruth Padel’s ‘Your Life as a Wave’ does it better, starting with the original wave moving inexorably towards the shore, but then turning the idea on its head:

Let’s reverse the metaphor, say you were born
here where the tide comes in, with seeds
of what you may become concealed in bladder-wrack
like the carbon star in a trapiche emerald. (pp.36/7)

A clever take on the original, it’s this reworking of the original ideas of the sonnet which often makes for the best attempts in the collection.

At the end of the book there are short biographies of all the contributors, and the additional notes which some of the poets have offered can be extremely enlightening.  Bernard O’Donoghue, for example, points out how his response to Sonnet 49, ‘At the Hallé’, attempts to mirror what he sees as the passive-aggressive undertones of the original.  John Burnside explains how he approached Sonnet 71 for his version, ‘Still Life’, seizing upon one minor detail from the original poem and then expanding upon it (which I would never have realised otherwise!).  Then there’s Jo Shapcott’s ‘2014/15’, which, as she says, uses one word from each line of the original to inspire it, even if the end result is rather different.

If I’m completely honest (and I do my best to be, when it suits me), poetry is not really my thing, but this collection is excellent, a fun introduction to both modern poetry and Shakespeare’s classics.  Part of the charm is the chance to read some of the original sonnets, of course, but it’s perhaps more interesting to see how they’ve been adapted.  I didn’t love all of them, but most (with the exception of Simon Armitage’s dull, morse-code-inspired ‘Di-Di-Dah-Dah-Di-Dit’…) can be enjoyed even by those with little interest in the genre.

Of course, we all have favourites, and I’m no exception.  While I quite liked Padel’s effort, there was one clear stand-out.  Sonnet 36 begins:

Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Although our undivided loves are one; (p.24)

However Don Paterson’s ‘Two’ doesn’t see it that way at all:

These two, if two, can only half-exist,
their being so lost, so inwardly inclined
that were somehow the universal mind
to make its inventory, they would be missed, (p.25)

A beautiful poem on two becoming one and forgetting the outside world, this was the one that grabbed my attention from the beginning and the one I kept coming back to, with a great start and an even better finish.  Paterson’s lovers have no time for the outside world, and even sleep seems a luxury they can’t afford:

Sleep will halve them so they will not sleep.

Not for you?  Well, we all have our idea of what poetry should be.  Perhaps you should try the book for yourself and tell us about your favourite; I’m sure you’ll find something that will hit the spot 🙂

6 thoughts on “‘On Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Poets’ Celebration’ (Review)

  1. I knew it would happen one day & all it took was the old bard waggledagger to let you glimpse the light, if only briefly 🙂 On a serious note great post & loved the tangent from your usual musings.


    1. Gary – Well, don’t get too used to it 😉 A great little book, but one for dipping into rather than reading cover to cover (as is usually the case with poetry, I suppose!).


    1. Ally – I was planning to try a play too, but sadly I wasn’t able to make the time for it 😦 Still, I do have one more Shakespeare-related post to come tomorrow 🙂


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